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Baseball Updates Drug Policy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Major League Baseball has long tested for drug use in players, especially performance-enhancing drugs. Now the league is going to test explicitly for opioids. The decision comes months after autopsy results revealed the presence of opioids in the body of Los Angeles pitcher Tyler Skaggs. This was after he was found dead in a hotel room. Bill Shaikin covers the league for the Los Angeles Times and joins us this morning. Thanks for being with us.

BILL SHAIKIN: Good morning.

MARTIN: So, Bill, just explain exactly what the change is going to mean for clubs and players.

SHAIKIN: Essentially, when Tyler Skaggs passed away and then the autopsy results came out a couple months later, the natural question that anybody would ask is, is there anything that we could have done? And Major League Baseball did not test players at that point for opioids. So the commissioner's office and the players union sat down and said, well, maybe we should do that. Maybe that might have prevented one death in this case. Because in American society, 31,000 people died last year because of fentanyl, which is one of the two opioids that was found in Tyler Skaggs' bloodstream. It was more drugs that had ever killed Americans in one year than any other single drug. So it's naive to say Tyler Skaggs is probably the only one and it was unusual. When the union agreed to the additional testing on behalf of the players, they said, OK, but our point should be to help people. So if players get suspended for steroids, that's one thing.

MARTIN: Right.

SHAIKIN: But if they test positive for opioids, we don't want to have suspensions. We want to have treatment to help the players get better.

MARTIN: So that will be part of it. It won't be an automatic you're out of the game.

SHAIKIN: Absolutely not. It will be a testing protocol. And the only way a player would get suspended is if he doesn't follow his treatment program.

MARTIN: So I guess I'm surprised - it shows how little I know about what goes into drug testing for players. But I would have thought that in testing for other drugs, other illegal performance-enhancing drugs, but just like marijuana or cocaine, that opioids would have been part of that.

SHAIKIN: Well, marijuana and cocaine and opioids were considered, under the major league testing program, drugs of abuse. And that meant that while they were technically forbidden, the major leagues didn't test players for them, which I know doesn't really make sense. But it essentially let players use those substances with no fear of repercussion unless something happened independently - you got busted in a drug ring, something happened in your car and they found the substances. But as far as testing, that was not going to happen.

Now, in the minor leagues where the players union has no effect in representing players, those substances were tested for, and there were suspensions. So the agreement now is to make it uniform for both opioids and marijuana. And what that means is everybody gets tested for opioids, and no one anymore will be tested for marijuana.

MARTIN: Oh, interesting. So just real brief, is this going to have an effect on other major sports leagues, do you think?

SHAIKIN: I think everybody is going to have to take a look at it because if it were specific to baseball, that would be one issue. But it's really a societal problem. This is what Major League Baseball is doing. And I cannot imagine in other sports they would not consider the same thing.

MARTIN: Bill Shaikin, writer with the LA Times, covering Major League Baseball, their decision to test their players for opioid use. Bill, thanks. We appreciate it.

SHAIKIN: All right. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERRY WEIGHT'S "BRONTO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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